When George W. Bush was president, the anti-war left spoke and demonstrated strongly against U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that Barack Obama is president — and is bombing Libya and continuing to fight in Afghanistan — most of those people are strangely quiet. Could it have anything to do with their loyalty to the Democratic Party?
Before Bush was president, conservatives loudly complained about federal spending and any expansion of the welfare state. But once Bush was in office — and expanded government massively through foreign invasions, military spending and a brand-new program to give prescription drugs to old folks — those same people mostly kept quiet. Could it have anything to do with their loyalty to the Republican Party?
It’s no secret that politics is filled with hypocrisy and positions that shift depending on who says what and who holds power at the moment. Still, we like to believe that we’re intellectually honest and it’s the other person who’s being the hypocrite.
In some ways, it’s easier for me to be consistent, because I never have to worry about “my allies” getting elected to anything. For those of us who’ve given up on politics and oppose the whole stinking system, it’s easier to say, “A pox on both your houses.” I wonder, though, at the ability of the human mind to justify things when I see libertarians compromising their beliefs for possible short-term election gains. (Did anyone mention Bob Barr?)
For today, though, the poster child for political hypocrisy comes from the Obama administration, largely because Democrats happen to hold the White House. The story of Harold Koh is a warning to any of us about the dangers of being so loyal to a politician or an institution that we betray the principles and intellectual honesty we claim to hold dear.
Koh is the lawyer in the State Department who’s responsible for the recent argument by the Obama administration that it didn’t need congressional approval to wage war on Libya. In fact, Koh argues that the bombing and other military activities U.S. forces have been engaged in aren’t hostilities. It’s bad enough to have government lawyers engaged in this sort of shameless dishonesty, but it’s even worse when you find out more about Koh’s background.
Koh is the former dean of Yale Law School, and he’s widely respected in the legal field. He’s also been known as a strong liberal (in the modern, “progressive” sense of the word), but he was probably best known to some people as a passionate critic of the Bush administration for its actions in the “war on terror” that went far beyond what Congress had authorized.
That’s right. The Obama administration’s point man on why Obama doesn’t need permission to do whatever he wants to do was one of the best-known legal critics of Bush doing whatever he wanted to do. The ironies of that astound me.
The New York Times had an article over the weekend detailing the confusion and sorrow felt by his long-time liberal allies at Koh’s current flip-flop on the issue. Rather than re-hash each point and anecdote in the piece, I’m just going to recommend that you read it. The article is a very clear picture of a man whose political and personal loyalties to people and institutions have caused him to throw away his long-time convictions and his intellectual honesty. The question I have is whether he consciously realizes that or not. I suspect the cognitive dissonance he felt at the contradictory positions has forced him to justify himself in his own mind in a “creative” way.
It’s easy to point the finger at Koh and assume that we’re better than he is. After all, we’re not such public hypocrites on a weighty issue. And that’s true. But we all are hypocrites in our own ways. Remember that driver whose action you were angrily complaining about? You did the same thing to somebody else 10 minutes later. Or the next day. Or how about the ethically gray thing you criticized someone for at work last year. You did the same thing later, but that was different — because it was you instead of someone else.
Oh, wait. That was me who did those things. So never mind.
I don’t know what your area of hypocrisy and self-deception is. Maybe you’re aware of it. Maybe you think you’re one of those who’s above it. Regardless, the one thing I’m certain of is that you’ve done it on some scale.
We all need to examine ourselves for the little hypocrisies in our lives and work harder to be more consistent and more honest — with ourselves and others. If we’re hypocrites about the little things — and see ourselves as paragons of virtue — it’s easier to miss our own feet of clay and then end up like Harold Koh, making an intellectual fool out of himself in front of his friends and former allies.